Tesla: Innovative and Unusual
In 1980, Michael Almereyda dropped out of Harvard to pursue a film career. He began by writing a biopic of the famed Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla; now, 40 years later, that project has finally come to fruition in Tesla. In the intervening decades, Almereyda has made a name for himself as an independent filmmaker of impressive versatility, nimbly jumping from narratives to documentaries to shorts and experimenting with unexpected narrative and aesthetic forms. That experience serves him well with Tesla, an unconventional biopic about one of history’s most singularly unorthodox men.
Starring a subdued Ethan Hawke as the titular investor and engineer, Tesla plays like a highlight reel of the highs and lows of his life and career, following the major moments, both known and unknown. Of course, the rivalry between Tesla and Thomas Edison (Kyle McLachlan) is classic fodder for a screen drama and has been explored in films like The Prestige and The Current War, but has yet to receive a definitive cinematic portrayal. Tesla comes close; the rivalry with Edison is the crux of the film, but it’s balanced against Tesla’s other relationships with figures like industry captains J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz) and George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), Morgan’s daughter Anne (Eve Hewson), Tesla’s compatriot and old friend Anthony Szigeti (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), and international sensation Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan). If that sounds like a lot of major characters, it is. Unfortunately, having this many dynamic figures orbiting Tesla throughout the film means that the man himself sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. Tesla doesn’t draw as much focus as he should, partially because Hawke plays him with such restraint, portraying him as a genius and innovator unsuited to the business of discovery. That’s not to say that Hawke gives a bad performance by any means—even when Tesla is behaving awkwardly or keeping quiet, Hawke’s eyes twinkle intriguingly, betraying the intelligence lying underneath his character’s demeanor.
Knowing that audiences may know Tesla more for his stature in American mythology than for the details of his life and business, Tesla doles out the particulars with omniscient (and sometimes fourth-wall-breaking) narration from Anne Morgan. As someone who often finds heavy use of voice over grating, I was initially skeptical. Another biopic with a secondary character telling me what the movie is already showing me (or what it should be)? But because Morgan is both a participant in and an omniscient chronicler of the proceedings, Almereyda uses her to provide metacommentary on our popular conception of Tesla and his contemporaries as icons rather than men, and uses her to fill in gaps in the historical record with subjective observations and hypothetical conjecture. Her introductions of all the major players—Tesla, Edison, Westinghouse, Morgan, Bernhardt—are accompanied by images displayed on an old slide projector, made up of historical drawings, photographs, and patent diagrams. These slideshows are later mirrored by scenes that use similarly projected backdrops, blurring the line between narrative depiction and metacommentary. As is appropriate for a movie chronicling perhaps the two greatest pioneers of electric light in history, cinematographer Sean Price Williams’ conscious use of light throughout the film is thematically heightened and visually dynamic, without being obtrusive.
Tesla marks Almereyda’s third collaboration with Hawke after 2000’s Hamlet and 2014’s Cymbeline—two contemporary retellings of the classic plays, transposing them to modern settings but retaining their Shakespearean dialogue. His most recent film, Marjorie Prime, was another stage adaptation that considered how future technology (in that case, holograms that hyper-realistically depict deceased loved ones) affect human relationships. With Tesla, Almereyda marries those two approaches. Small anachronisms permeate the entire film (at one point, Edison pulls out an iPhone), and John Paesano’s electronic-infused score is much more modern than what you find in a typical early 20th century period piece—like Tesla himself, it’s ahead of its time. These small touches are mostly successful, but not always; in one jarring scene late in the film, the use of out-of-period technology leaps into the foreground and threatens to derail the entire thing. Fortunately it’s only a brief misstep, and the use of modern visual markers is otherwise fairly finely calibrated.
Overall, Tesla manages to sidestep many of the usual stumbling blocks that trip up standard biopics; like its namesake, it’s an innovative and atypical experience, with more than a few surprises along the way.
Tesla premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and is set to be released on August 21, 2020.